“When the aliens come,” he told us, “China’ll hear them first. They’ve been building that huge radio dish over there since long before either of you were even a thought in your daddy’s mind—they’ve got decades on us. Jesus, the size of that thing…So the Chinese’ll get first contact, the glory and Nobels and all that. And after, who knows? Communist world order, probably. And some red, red aliens.”
Lena drew her eye from the telescope and looked to me, brow furrowed, her hair flushed orange in the back-glow of the porch light. And what could I do but shrug? There was a lot we didn’t know back then.
Hindsight tells us he was talking about the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope radio dish. Scientists and astrophysicists in southwest China spent years nestling it into a dimple in some rural mountain-scape; one massive basin so symmetrical, so pristine, it almost appeared an artifact of the extraterrestrial civilizations for which it was designed to listen. It wasn’t a Communist monument so much as a scientific undertaking, glittering with extraordinary potential. But Calvin had his own vernacular and a callous way about him. It was difficult to see which pieces of him my cousin Lena had taken; where she was smooth and softly freckled, he was guttered over, with pale, watery eyes and skin like stale bread. You had to look to the teeth to see the familial resemblance; they both bore the same oversized canines, the two central incisors just a bit too small.
My mother drove me ninety minutes to their house nearly every other weekend, more often in the summertime or during school breaks. But for the first few moments of every visit, each hallway seemed newly unfamiliar to me. It was always jarring, how different the house smelled from my own before I became used to breathing their air. Lena alternately loved her father and hated him—hated the shit he tracked in on the soles of his boots, the Natural American Spirit Blacks he smoked like he was better than he really was (everyone else in the family seemed fine with Marlboro). She hated the way his voice cracked when he yelled and the smudges on the walls where his fists had been. But we both loved the telescope in the backyard that he had bought Lena for Christmas. Calvin had a strange passion for extraterrestrial life. He made us tinfoil hats to block the gamma rays, let us watch Alien and Independence Day far too early. But, even at that age, we understood that real aliens didn’t look like men in spandex and didn’t ride around in dinner plates. We were only interested in the science, the cold hard facts of it all. And, in the interest of scientific discovery, we were given free reign over the brush out back, where the Christmas trees grew. We combed through the tracks where ATVs and tractors carved gashes into the mud, hoping to come across deep space junk. We were determined to beat the Chinese at their own game and win first contact for Suffield, Connecticut. And a couple nights or so before Calvin left, Lena and I found the alien.
We took the Ranger through gasping winds after dark, Lena at the wheel with me riding shotgun. A bag of tools slumped in the space between us: flashlights, disposable cameras, a pocket knife for protection. This was the hunt we played out on nights for which the starlight allowed. We could occupy ourselves for hours, lost in the meadowed acres, searching, scanning the ground for some sign of alien life. And the minutes we spent frisking cattails and red clovers were minutes spent away from the house, away from whatever we had left behind. That was the way it was that night; Calvin had come home angry, his blood running hotter and meaner as the sun sank lower in the sky. We knew enough to get out while we could, but the cold was unnerving for September. I kept my hands outstretched, flicking through blonde grass and batting moths as we roared through the fields, past the two knotted willow trees and a fallen birch by a neighboring farm. We used to lay on our backs in the thicket back there, our hair spread out in the dirt like wildflower roots, pulling tiny bugs from their nests of globulous spit. Aunt Meghan would call us in at a certain hour to check our armpits and waistbands for ticks. She plucked them off with a pair of silver tweezers, slowly, deliberately, then covered the bite with Neosporin and flushed the offending parasites down the toilet. My mother’s sister, so proud, wore the delicate half-moons of fingernail punctures on her arms and a wedding ring on her slim finger. On bad nights, Aunt Meghan would make us microwave popcorn and usher us upstairs before even the cats slunk back inside. The best thing was to lie under Lena’s flannel comforter with our heads where our feet should be. Everything’s muffled in the woolen dark.
At the brook, the path became muddy enough that we worried the Ranger would skid and stick in the filth, leaving us with no choice but to continue on foot. Our legs were still not long enough to span the larger puddles, and so we trod the hard ridges where the mud had solidified into firm clay. The plot of Christmas trees was planted in clean rows, just far enough apart for the branches to brush from line to line; as Lena took the lead, I was peppered by the prickly needles that whisked back in her wake. Above us, the sky glittered with unseen galaxies, faraway comets, and dying stars. It was cold down on Earth; our breath unfurled from our lips and floated to the stratosphere. We kept our flashlights trained up at the blackness, alert for any sign of an orbiting ship or levitation device. It was hard to imagine that anything could see us all the way down there; the trees were so tall.
My mother made Meghan and Calvin my godparents, Lena my godsister. They took their positions seriously; even now, Calvin sends me a crisp twenty-dollar bill every year on my birthday. “God money,” he writes on the card. He hasn’t been to Suffield in years, but it’s difficult for me to forget his visage. I’ve seen his hair combed back nice and neat, face clean and smelling like aftershave at my first communion. But through the railing at the top of Lena’s stairs, he appeared to me flushed and streaked with tears, hair stuck to his cheeks in sweaty clumps. The night of the alien was bad, one of the worst I can remember, and Lena was tense as we paced the paths between the rows of conifers, her mouth set like she was trying hard not to cry. She was bigger than me, leaner and taller and already developing breast buds like small berries; it’s always strange to see a hero weakened, even stranger if she’s wearing infrared goggles with a bandana tied around her neck.
A few rows down, we heard a sound like branches ruffling in the wind, but louder, more immediate. Lena paused, pressed her palm to my mouth to silence me. Where was it? Somewhere in the limbs of young trees above our heads? There’s something terrifying about standing just on the cusp of becoming lost, a few missteps from oblivion. All the trees started to blend together in the murky starlight, and I grasped at constellations to hold me steady. For a second, the dark bore down around us, and we half-expected some green figure to phase through a vernal trunk right before our eyes. We ran down the row to the edge of the plot and into the real forest, where dead branches and yellowed pine needles littered the ground in a comfortingly earthly configuration. We spread a blanket and sat together at the base of a fat oak, letting the cold sink deeper, deeper into our bones. All the while, our flashlights stayed on, one aimed out in front of us, the other toward the sky.
Once, when I was seven and Lena was nine, Calvin came out to watch the sky with us. It was another bad night; things had been strained all day, and my mother was driving down early the next morning to pick me up. Calvin stepped out onto the porch to light a Natural American, ambled over to where we stood with the telescope. Lena and I were both quiet, waiting to sense how we should act, but he pointed out each of our star signs through the lens and was careful not to blow his smoke in our faces. “I don’t think they’ll be warlike,” he said without prompting. “But I don’t think they’ll be all that nice, either.”
“The best we can hope for are those slug things or single-celled organisms that can’t do us any harm,” he said. Then he left us out there.
From way back in the woods, we heard another sound, heavy and foul. A gunshot, clear as empty space. We startled up, grabbed the blanket, and ran, ran through the forest, through the blond grass, the rows of evergreen. The Ranger was still parked at the entrance of the Christmas plot, but we sprinted right past, through puddles and syrupy earth. I didn’t even know if Calvin owned a gun, but suddenly it was all I could think of. There was no breath to spare for talking, but we felt our shared terror in the tips of our fingers, our lower guts. I whispered to the grass as we ran: It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be.
I matched my pace to my own heart-rate as we cut through the golden fields behind neighboring farmhouses, and before long we could see it: 42 Mountain Road. Through the yellow glow of the windows, I saw Calvin in the living room, sobbing, pounding his fists against the wall and smashing glassware on the floor. Oh, god. There was something primitive, savagely cruel about him in that moment, as if he were on the verge of combusting and breaking down to his most primordial state. A collapsing star. My aunt moved into the window frame, and I remember deflating and inflating all at once, feeling a mad rapping underneath my skin, like someone living inside me had had enough and wanted to get out. Lena, still running beside me, nearly choked with alleviation, coughing and coughing, expelling toxic air from her lungs. Like children often do, we ran hot with fear and then cold with a powerful relief. Stumbling to slow my pace, I suddenly tripped and sprawled, crumbs of asphalt, pebbles, broken glass burying themselves in my palms. I’d fallen on something warm and muscled, alive or nearly so. Lena turned to me, trained her flashlight at the ground, and screamed.
A coyote, skinny, mangy, and newly dead, lay on the matted grass beneath me. Blood dribbled from a gunshot wound in its neck, staining the knee of my jeans and the hem of my jacket. Its open mouth and lolling tongue were still slick with fresh saliva, all those life-giving fluids just streaming out and onto me. In the glare of Lena’s flashlight, its eyes glowed an unearthly yellow, and its tail, curled inward, seemed a fifth leg. A sudden clamor, and we turned to see a neighbor come around his henhouse, a rifle in his gloved hand. The creature was foaming, maybe rabid, he shouted at us. It was trying to hijack the coop, seize the fat cockerels inside. We needed to get up, to get away. Even still, it was all I could do to keep from reaching down to stroke the coarse fur of the thing’s breast, feel the foreign metals of its claws. It was still warm, snout far too angular to be of this world. All the while, he was shouting, but we could barely hear. We were just staring, staring at the alien.
Cecelia Vieira is a Philadelphia-based writer originally from Andover, Massachusetts. She received a national Scholastic Art & Writing award for original reporting, and her work has been recognized with the Charles Snow Burns Poetry Prize and the John Horne Burns Prize for Fiction, among others. She currently studies Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at the University of Pennsylvania, and is working on a collection of short fiction.